No truths self-evident (PoemTalk #105)

Michael Magee, 'Morning Constitutional'

from left to right: Kristen Gallagher, Joshua Schuster, Kerry Sherin Wright (photo by Al Filreis).


Kristen Gallagher, Kerry Sherin Wright, and Joshua Schuster converged on Philadelphia to help us celebrate twenty years of the Kelly Writers House. Al Filreis took the opportunity of this reunion of KWH founders to convene a PoemTalk session on the work of a fourth founder — Michael Magee. This was Magee in his pre-Flarf days, the late 1990s. He was finishing a doctoral dissertation on Emerson, pragmatism, Ellison, and jazz; was beginning a relationship with the person, now his partner, who had created the Kensington Needle Exchange; was inventing the experimental little magazine Combo (under the auspices of the Writers House); and was taking long, daily morning Emersonian/Whitmanian constitutionals, walking the city incessantly described as the cradle of constitutional democracy. The book of poems resulting from these experiences, Morning Constitutional, was published in 1999 (by Kristen Gallagher’s Handwritten Press), and then again in 2001. In this special, extended episode of PoemTalk, we hear performances of, and then explore, three parts of Morning Constitutional: section 5, called “435 Chestnut Street: Benny’s Place”; section 6, “Independence Hall”; and section 10, “Kensington & Huntingdon Streets, The North Philadelphia Needle Exchange.” (He performed these and other poems from the project at the Kelly Writers House in 2001.)

Magee is interested, at the finest-sounded level of the word as such, in the history and the promise of US democracy. He writes, in the late ’90s, as someone living in a city where walking is the experience of having stated democratic values, as stated, constantly thrown into question. The poems we discuss consist of a merge of monumentalist big-historical, self-constituted rhetoric on one hand and, on the other, the present gathering of language as it is spoken, as it is heard, as it is believed. The result is a hopeful browning of the bronzed monumentalizing verbiage of the “found pops” (fathers) as it could be observed through Whitmanian empirical yet subjective witnessing. Every line is itself “a guarded ordering bordering on an underdog corner restoration.” In the hopeful (and frankly lyrical, and romantic) story of the needle exchange, we are presented with evidence “of still being here, the medivan arriving, the exchange beginning.” Magee never claims to be writing, in itself, an “indie tune pending censor.” He knows he has not been censored and so he seeks a way of hearing such a tune well and for good, and thus to spark the conversation, such as, we hope, is the one we have had here — about what it might take to reconstitute self-evident truths.

PoemTalk #105 was produced by Al Filreis, and directed and engineered by Zach Carduner, and edited by the same Zach Carduner. We welcome a new collaborating partner at the Poetry Foundation, Meaghan Winston, to the PoemTalk community. To watch video recordings of talks by Kerry, Josh, and Kristen — during the twentieth-year celebration at the Writers House — click here. Photo above, at left: people line up for a free breakfast provided by the St. Francis Inn soup kitchen in Kensington, July 2014 (photo credit: Ron Tarver.) Above, at right: Michael Magee.

Explode for small change (PoemTalk #104)

Akilah Oliver, 'Is You Is or Is You Ain't'

Akilah Oliver


Al Filreis brought together Yolanda Wisher (Monk Eats an Afro; the new poet laureate of Philadelphia), Charles Bernstein (Pitch of Poetry; codirector of PennSound), and Patricia Spears Jones (Lucent Fire: New & Selected) to talk about a poem by Akilah Oliver. It’s a prose poem to be found (on pp. 43–44) in Oliver’s book the she said dialogues: flesh memory (1999) and is reproduced here below: “is you is or is you ain’t.” PennSound’s Akilah Oliver author page includes a recording of her performing this poem during a Segue Series reading at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York on January 6, 2007.

During the discussion we work through a number of terms, tropes, and concepts important to Oliver’s poetics. Flesh memory, for starters: “that which my body recalls,” Oliver once said, “has to do with the task of remembrance and its narrative reinvention … what gets abandoned. My body has always been a dialogue with the impossible and the apparent.” Apparent in that statement seems to be meant as a kind of apparition, for instance the unforgettable reflection of “ed sullivan introduc[ing] diana ross. & the supremes,” or this uncanny numen: “nobody’s home in my body,” which is our poem’s opening sentence.

We also encounter the several possible senses of “small change” in “off went the big dick exploding for small change.” And the several things that can result from having “forgot[ten] to turn the denial faucets off last night.” And the prose poem’s idiomatic title: “is you is or is you ain’t,” which enables the piece both to riff off and to swerve from Louis Jordan’s jump blues classic (1944) in which sexual attraction is a matter of being uncertain and of always wanting to know. The poem’s final word, “right,” can ironically undo and, at the same time, might necessarily accept the state of things — namely that “it’s only between me & you.”

This 104th episode of PoemTalk was produced as always by Al Filreis, recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House, and was edited by the selfsame talented Zach Carduner. PoemTalk, launched in 2007, has been and is a coproduction of the Kelly Writers House and PennSound at the University of Pennsylvania and the Poetry Foundation. We are also grateful to Gary, Nina, and Freddy Wexler for their support in creating our studio; and to Stuart Applebaum, Hillary Miller Krouse and Rodger Krouse, and hundreds of members of the ModPo community — for their support of the Digital Poetries Fund at the Kelly Writers House.

We recommend to listeners of this PoemTalk episode Akilah Oliver’s “Hold the Space,” published in Jacket. We also refer listeners to the reading given at the Kelly Writers House by Patricia Spears Jones on the day this episode was recorded.

Swear it closed (PoemTalk #103)

Simone White, 'Of Being Dispersed'

From left to right: Eileen Myles, Erica Kaufman, Rachel Zolf


Rachel Zolf, Eileen Myles, and erica kaufman joined Al Filreis to talk about four short poems from what was then an unpublished typescript of a new book by Simone White. The book is Of Being Dispersed, now available from Futurepoem. White performed these and other poems from the collection at a Segue Series reading at Zinc Bar in New York on January 11, 2014. Her PennSound page includes this reading and others.

The work responds in part to George Oppen’s Of Being Numerous. Numerousness, pluralism, plenitude of subjects, objects, and sources, are certainly inclusive influences — but are also extended and even defied here by the agony and ferocity of dispersal, the sexual and racial sense of being pushed out. That pushing out, and subsequent closing, might doubt easy numerosity; after all, it births, brings into being (linguistically and in the stories behind several of the poems). Rebuke thus entails verbal play, urgently at times. The pea that discomforts the princess (in a poem, Rachel contends, about the necessary flagrancy of a sworn-closed cunt) is wicked. There’s birthing, and angry yet worried mothering — but there’s also (in a pun Rachel also points out) kidding. The four poems we discuss seem quite different at first, but in the end the group is able to generalize, we hope helpfully for our listeners, about White’s wonderful but perhaps challenging writing: the poems are about race, diaspora, and sexuality — and the playful, shameless ferocity that seems to her to be the necessary kind of language for engaging those categories together. And, erica and Eileen add, a fearlessness in letting poetic revery in ("it is an orange blossom, it is a rose hip / under a baby tongue").

PoemTalk #103 was recorded and engineered by Zach Carduner and was edited by the same talented Zach Carduner. Eileen Myles’s visit to the Wexler Studio came at the end of her three-day visit as a Kelly Writers House Fellow, a stint that featured a reading and an interview-conversation moderated by PoemTalk’s founding producer Al Filreis.

[four poems from Of Being Dispersed]

There was a time I hardly went three steps
Except another black girl was with me.

Mother. Always lonely. I am always.
Mother those girls. Forty-two.

March summer. Light blue. Vermont.
Endless crescent. Invert as a tyke lake.

Fernet Mother. I’m grown. Forest.
San Francisco. Lone cold.

Stone turd. Talk three or none.

It Must Be Shameless

Apart disclaimed wicked pea, split soft skin
of the principle princess, who writhes,
a little blood passes her perineum every night,
grey linen sheets flax talisman plot luxe
to strip and scrub all gore
a plain bar of secret white soap
it is a pine tree, it is an orange blossom, is it a rose hip
under a baby tongue, blood cuts
punisher, swear it closed, closes it

Kettle to Pot

Unable to pour boiling water
over an edge from kettle to pot
water boils from kettle to neti pot
still boils from kettle to cup running over
boil pool steam pool leak pool
little cooling pot over the boiled edge
of boil pooled salt vapors
sulfurous stank boil heal dangled over
the boiled edge of burnt earth
cooling salt pool nettle stung
black clotted blood at the bottom
of the sink


Don’t nuzzle me fucker-maker
Rinky-dink kale feeding guinea pig
Fonky bag uh cornchips plastic shoe
Wearing crinkle-fry bastard
. . . up in here TONIGHT
Wanchu go head mister plinth butt
And roll ya dumb ass a lavender
Cigarette don’t make me slap a freeze
On this wart-o-matic bullshit
Get me a rancorous tinker toy
N turn this motherfucker out


Mind's not right (PoemTalk #102)

Robert Lowell, 'Skunk Hour'

PoemTalk #102 was recorded in the Woodberry Poetry Room, Lamont Library, Harvard University. From left to right: Lisa New, Rafael Campo, Christina Davis.


Al Filreis traveled to Harvard University and was hosted for this on-the-road episode of PoemTalk by the staff of the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) in Lamont Library, where Lisa New, Rafael Campo, and WPR Director Christina Davis joined him for a conversation about Robert Lowell’s poem “Skunk Hour.” Probably Lowell’s most well-known poem, it was placed last in Life Studies (1959) but had been written first — and can be said to have inaugurated Lowell’s “looser” style, associated with his so-called “confessional” mode. When Lowell began composing “Skunk Hour,” he later recalled, “I felt that most of what I knew about writing was a hindrance.” Our conversation is taken up by the many conflicting aspects of that perceived hindrance. And on top of those there are, of course, the hindrances put up by the new, allegedly freeing style itself. How to work through the unfree assumptions behind the island’s “fairy decorator” as a stock character? What exactly is the “hierarchic privacy” the poem mocks and at the same time seems to desire? Is such longing discernible in the poem’s portentous poetics? What inner theological struggle does the poem express and can the speaker draw from New England’s Puritan relationship to the land and indigenous languages a means of managing Miltonian sin? How open is the skunk as a symbol? And whence the quoted phrases from pop music and Milton’s Satan side by side? The four talkers do not agree on answers to these questions and they are variously doubtful and amazed by Lowell’s emotional and lyric pretensions and by his projection of psychological crisis on New England history and nature, but they come — iteratively in conversation and collaboratively — to admire the complexity of the poem’s mix of transitional poetic stances.

We at PoemTalk wish to thank Christina Davis and her staff for hosting us. This episode was engineered by Al Filreis even as he performed his hosting and moderating duties, and later has been phonologically mastered and edited by Zach Carduner.

With what geometry (PoemTalk #101)

Edward Dorn, 'The Sundering U.P. Tracks'

Left to right: Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, Andrew Whiteman


Simone White, Sophia Le Fraga, and Andrew Whiteman joined Al Filreis to discuss a poem by Ed Dorn called “The Sundering U.P. Tracks.” It was published in 1967 as part of The North Atlantic Turbine. A note by Dorn atop the verse indicates that it stands at “the end of” that work. A coda? A polemical postscript? The recording of the poem, available at Dorn’s PennSound page, is undated and (as yet) unsourced. For the purposes of our discussion we assumed that the performance was roughly contemporaneous with the publication of the poem — so, let us say, late 1960s or early 1970s. Listeners to the episode will sense that the apparent importance of that dating is not entirely clear to us, but that in the emergence of our political reading of the poem we situate it as a late-1960s reflection back on a slightly earlier moment of realization and radicalization: it recollects and with a bit of distance and greater knowledge recalls the turning-point summer of 1965, when Dorn’s collaborator, photographer Leroy McLucas, came to Pocatello only to discover that because of the racial dividing line he had to be housed on the other side of the tracks. The racial trope and idiom of the US East reverts to its literal origins in the making of the US West. And there it is: the key fault line, a built-environment actuality and metaphor. The drawing of a line is the sundering that is endemic to the use of Right of Way to abet the westward expansion of American capital. And Ed Dorn, as the four PoemTalkers iteratively and collaboratively (and to some extent, for some of us, grudgingly) come to realize, is ready rhetorically and politically for a counter-expansion that rereads American generations of Manifest Destiny, monopoly, segregation, and local oligarchy on one hand, and, on the other, “summer firebombs / of Chicago.” The latter are responses to “the old isolator / that ambassador at large,” the younger Harriman, who as “distinguished elder statesman of the foreign-policy establishment” and member of the so-called Wise Men under JFK and LBJ points toward a technocratic globalized version of robber baronism. “[T]he rapacious geo-economic surgery of Harriman,” in the poem’s phrase, necessitates the synthesizing politics of the 1960s, and Dorn here realizes that that analysis begins with race.

There may be a grand environmental dimension to that synthesis too. Several times during our conversation Simone emphazies Dorn’s apparent search for vast geological and ancient terrestrial contexts that can help put the lie to the dividing line. “How many thousand years too late now / is that desire” — the vain longing, that is, to accept “my town in my fair country” as his without irony; to welcome Leroy McLucas truly to “stay with me”? The PoemTalk group must do some hard work with literary-political poetics here, observing for instance that 1965 was a critical point for US avant-garde poetry and for the Ed Dorn/Amiri Baraka relationship. The poem’s convergence of McLucas and Jones — the two Le Rois/Leroys — also “bears the scar / of an expert linear division” that is thus not only the railroad coming through another American town but “cosmological America” overall.

The images below show the two pages on which the poem appears in Edward Dorn Collected Poems, ed. Jennifer Dunbar Dorn (Manchester, UK: Carcanet, 2012), 283–84. Click on an image for a larger view.

PoemTalk episode #101 was recorded in the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House in Philadelphia. Our engineer and editor was Zach Carduner. We are pleased to say again that PoemTalk is a collaboration of PennSound, the Kelly Writers House, and the Poetry Foundation. You can subscribe to PoemTalk through iTunes. You can also download every episode at the Poetry Foundation website or here at Jacket2.